MOGADISHU, (Reuters) – Western and African diplomats on Friday called for the urgent deployment of peacekeepers to Somalia as al Qaeda’s deputy leader urged defeated Islamists to launch an Iraq-style insurgency against Ethiopian forces there.
The Islamists, who controlled much of southern Somalia since June, were forced into hiding after being routed from their strongholds by Ethiopian military defending Somalia’s interim government in two weeks of full-scale warfare. They have vowed to fight on, melting into the hills in Somalia’s remote, southern tip where Ethiopian and government forces are chasing hundreds of their fighters.
Nairobi has sent troops north to seal its nearby frontier, blocking entry to Somalis refugees fleeing the rattling gunfire.
Diplomats fear the Islamists, thrashed in conventional warfare, may resort to guerrilla tactics to strike traditionally Christian Ethiopia in what they perceive as a holy war. “You must ambush, mine, raid and (carry out) martyrdom campaigns so that you can wipe them out,” Ayman al-Zawahri, deputy to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, said in his message. “As happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the world’s strongest power was defeated by the campaigns of the mujahideen, troops going to heaven, so its slaves shall be defeated on the Muslim lands of Somalia,” he said.
Since Islamists fled a last stronghold on New Year’s Day, an ambush killed at least one Ethiopian soldier in south Somalia, and a grenade was thrown at Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu.
Al-Zawahri’s message, posted on a Web site used by militant Islamist groups, is likely to reinforce Washington’s belief that the Somalia Islamic Courts Council is linked to and even run by an al Qaeda cell, a charge the Islamists have denied.
Meeting in Nairobi, the International Contact Group on Somalia, which includes the United States, European and African nations, met Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf and pushed for a fast deployment of peacekeepers.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said the security vacuum left after the Islamists were beaten needed to be filled. But she downplayed the al Qaeda call to arms. “I think a lot of bold statements were made by extremists in the Courts, that they were going to kill Somalis, that they were going to stand and fight. … And they just ran,” Frazer told Reuters after the meeting.
Ethiopia Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Friday told Al Jazeera television his troops would leave with two weeks. Experts fear the interim government — already facing worsening security in Mogadishu — will flounder without its protection.
The government wants a foreign peacekeeping force, approved by the United Nations before the war, to be deployed.
Uganda said it was ready to send troops to Somalia as soon as its parliament approves the plan, a move welcomed by the Contact Group on Friday.
Within hours of the Islamists leaving Mogadishu, militiamen loyal to warlords ousted in June reappeared at checkpoints in the city where they used to rob and terrorise civilians.
Their return showed how easily Mogadishu could slide back into the anarchy it has known since the 1991 ouster of a dictator.
On Thursday, gunmen attacked a truck carrying oil near Mogadishu, wounding three people and raising fears of a return to the clan violence that had largely stopped during six months of Islamist rule using sharia law.
Despite a government deadline for residents to hand in their weapons or be forcibly disarmed, few guns have been collected. “People are asking to be paid money to hand over their weapons and are asking us if we can guarantee their security,” Interior Minister Hussein Mohamed Farah Aideed said. He said it was unlikely forced disarmament would begin soon and called on the warlords to go the government’s seat Baidoa. “The population of Mogadishu does not want them,” he told reporters. “We will tell them to hand over their weapons.”
Kenya’s closure of its border crossing points has left hundreds fleeing fighting unable to cross over and seek refuge at camps, aid workers say. A local police chief said several suspected fighters were arrested and some had been taken to Nairobi for questioning.
The United States has deployed warships off the Somali coast to hunt fleeing Islamists. “As far as chasing down the terrorists goes, I think they are cornered and we will see what happens,” Frazer told Reuters.